Anxiety and Anger: Meltdowns vs. Tantrums

A meltdown and a tantrum appear similar, but they are two separate things. Using them interchangeably is damaging to the person having a meltdown. Here is an article on why.

Tantrum: A tantrum, temper tantrum, meltdown or hissy fit is an emotional outburst, usually associated with children or those in emotional distress, that is typically characterized by stubbornness, crying, screaming, defiance, angry ranting, a resistance to attempts at pacification, and, in some cases, hitting, and other physically violent behavior. Physical control may be lost; the person may be unable to remain still; and even if the “goal” of the person is met, he or she may not be calmed.[1][2][3][4] A tantrum may be expressed in a tirade: a protracted, angry, or violent speech.[1][2]”

This definition is problematic because it combines a tantrum and a meltdown. It even mentions both in the definition, as though they are synonyms.

tantrum is when someone has a controlled outburst for the purpose of attention and to get a result in their favor. For example, a child at a grocery store screaming because they want the candy, but their parent refused. Maybe, if they make a big enough scene, they’ll get their way. The act is only performed when there is a specific audience to witness and hopefully fulfill needs.

meltdown is anyone experiencing uncontrollable anxiety and panic that turns into rage. Anger is never its own emotion. It comes from other feelings. For example, a child cannot cope with being humiliated at school and fears what tomorrow will bring. The episode happens regardless of anyone present. The person may or may not acknowledge anyone else in the room, as it can happen with or without anyone else present.

The aftermath of a “tantrum” vs. “meltdown.”

Due to the fact that a tantrum is an act, the performer is never negatively affected. The behavior lasts only as long as it takes to gain a response, or until the performer is bored.

Since a meltdown is a release of emotions, the affected person experiences great pain, emotionally and/or physically. When the episode is over, they are exhausted and often feel ashamed of their explosive actions.

Another reason the term “tantrum” should never be used in replace of “meltdown” is its connection to the child’s mind and experience. Meltdowns are not only experienced by children. Any age can experience a meltdown. After all, life only becomes more complicated and difficult as we age. For example, witnessing an adult have a meltdown because they’re struggling in this economy with no means of improving it and calling their reaction a “tantrum” undermines what is really going on. If it were a “tantrum,” their bills, job, and everything involving their financial situation could improve after the episode is over; unfortunately, that’s not reality.

There isn’t enough literature on “meltdown vs. tantrum” in adults. There is plenty in terms of Asperger’s and other disabilities in children. This causes a severe lack of social acceptance and understanding. If society views them as one in the same, mental illness will continue to be misunderstood. The article, “Do You Know the First 7 Signs of Emotional Meltdown?” by Mary Jaksch explains about meltdowns, at least. Personally, I appreciate her acknowledgment that it occurs when experiencing an intense emotional response; therefore, it is accurately explored as the unintentional, embarrassing explosion that it is; instead of a pre-meditated cry for attention by a spoiled child:

“When we’re in balance, we can usually avoid responding in an extreme manner. But sometimes we snap and go out of control. (I still have a dent in my dining table where I banged down a coffee mug and then hurled it through a window pane, before yelling at a long-ago boyfriend to get out of the house…NOW!)”

Jaksch goes through the signs leading up to a meltdown. They’re helpful. I like her comparison of trouble with making decisions to Shakespeare’s Hamlet: “To be, or not to be.” If these signs sound familiar, she makes a few suggestions. Hopefully, they work for you. Of course, I admit that they may or may not help. I’ve tried some of them before reading the article.

I exercise a lot. I’ll walk for an hour, or sometimes longer. I’ll walk until my legs hurt and still feel the meltdown isn’t over. I’ll talk with a friend, feel better, but things will resume later. So, how does that help? I used to keep a journal, until I realized that the problem isn’t solved. It’s a temporary release of energy. Lastly, I self-analyze, constantly. My reason for mentioning the article is that it speaks about meltdowns without painting it as an age thing. It’s validating.

Woody Allen’s film Blue Jasmine (2013) has a scene in which the term “tantrum” is used incorrectly. Jasmine Francis (Cate Blanchett) goes from being a rich married woman living in Manhattan to a broke widow living in San Francisco with her sister, Ginger (Sally Hawkins). Back in Manhattan, Jasmine thought she had it all with her money manager husband, Hal Francis (Alec Baldwin). It isn’t until he tells her that he’s leaving her for a younger woman that everything he lied about begins to unravel.

In the scene where Hal tells Jasmine about the young woman he’s leaving her for, Jasmine has a meltdown; although, Hal tells her that she will be financially taken care of, she rightfully panics over the emotional abandonment by her husband. She cries and freaks out. This is the moment in which Hal holds her down, telling her, “You’re having a tantrum.” Jasmine is not having a tantrum. Her life has just been shaken. Her crying and screaming isn’t going to change the facts, and she knows that.

Ginger’s boyfriend, Chili (Bobby Cannavale) mentions to Jasmine that Ginger told him that she had a nervous breakdown. We see Jasmine talk to herself, panic, and try to hold onto her sanity. This is not someone who would think a “tantrum” would solve her problems with Hal, or get her life back to the way it was. This character is dealing with a complete life change. While Jasmine is a spoiled character, she has a right to become as emotional as she does, after being so deceived by someone she was supposed to be able to trust.

If you suffer from an anxiety disorder or know someone who does, and they have what appears to be a “tantrum,” please think twice before labeling it as such. I hope this article helps educate those unaware of their language and/or validates those going through this.

Editor’s Note: This was originally posted on HubPages by this author in 2018. It has since been revised and republished here.

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